Failing Grades: The Federal Politics of Education Standards

Liam Julian

Kevin R. Kosar
Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2005

The celebrated 1983 report A Nation at Risk warned of a rapid decline in American students' academic achievements. But the truth, says Kevin Kosar in his new book Failing Grades, is that mediocrity "is not rising: it has been high for at least three decades." He points the finger of blame at our political system, which specializes in stonewalling serious reform efforts. Legislation that could effect real educational change is repeatedly neutered in the lawmaking process by both conservatives (Kosar calls them "antistatists") and liberals (Kosar calls them "liberals") who subordinate the reforms to their own hodge-podge of interests. Kosar describes this neutering in detail, pulling the wool off the process that reduced America 2000 (pitched in 1991) and Goals 2000 (pitched in 1993) to little more than weak tea. Even the No Child Left Behind Act, arguably the most important education reform legislation in four decades, was conceived only with considerable assuaging of liberal and antistatist fears. Kosar writes: "Though touted as a revolution, the No Child Left Behind Act is more of an evolution." While it may be the most wide-reaching attempt at federal control of the nation's schools, it is actually the states and districts that retain the power. Washington-watchers will then ask, "OK, so what's new? And what now?" They won't find those answers here. Kosar doesn't supply them.. Instead, the value of this book is uncovering what has come before. Thanks to this work, we'll all be a little less blind in the future to the realities of the struggles ahead. Legislation that changes American education for the better will be tough to come by, Kosar notes, but in the end, "It's a struggle well worth undertaking." To be sure.

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